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Coriolis: food processors waste millions on badly planned automation projects

By Rod Addy , 07-Mar-2013
Last updated on 07-Mar-2013 at 16:39 GMT

High levels of manpower may seem wasteful, but poorly thought out plant investment can be worse, says Coriolis
High levels of manpower may seem wasteful, but poorly thought out plant investment can be worse, says Coriolis

Food manufacturers risk wasting millions in capital investment by failing to plan how new machinery will integrate with existing operations according to international food consultancy Coriolis.

"The drive for greater productivity can lead to rushed and ill-considered investment decisions," said Paul Eastwood, Coriolis' operations director. 

Organisations attempting to increase productivity could be guilty of looking first to automation to secure productivity improvements, he said. Such moves were not always suitable for manufacturers’ products, which could require the process flexibility which people bring.

Too often seen as panacea

While full automation made sense for the large scale production of standardised products, it was too often seen as the panacea for all food production, rather than a catalyst to growth, said Eastwood. "It is a blinkered belief that productivity improvements will always follow immediately from investment in automation." 

Investment and automation projects needed to involve those working directly on the factory floor, he added. “Real issues can set in when investment decisions are made without the involvement of the people at the coal face of the operation.

"This rush to automation can lead to companies going too far, too fast and once made, those investment decisions are incredibly difficult to row back from.” 

Stuck in limbo

A lack of people-centred investment – training and leadership – could result in a stand-off and investment projects becoming stuck in limbo, said Eastwood. In these scenarios, manufacturers had to work hard with staff to establish where projects were heading, working backwards to enable the project to move forwards.

"These negotiations can get personal as management have staked a tremendous amount on the new kit, while operators can feel like the new systems are not the right solution or are unwilling to take ownership of the line.

"Calm heads are required on all sides and the role of the independent arbiter becomes crucial to moving the process forward."

Engaging the right people in the project at the beginning was the vital step in ensuring this, he said. 

Investing in bottlenecks

Investment in automation in reaction to short term demand or to secure a ‘quick win’ also rarely produced the productivity savings originally envisaged, said Eastwood.

“Capital investment is not always planned especially well in the food manufacturing sector. We’ve seen many examples where investment has been made into semi-obsolete machinery for immediate cash savings.

"Two years later, with surrounding parts of the production line upgraded, the original investment results in a bottleneck, which is a bad decision in anyone’s book.”

He stressed that manufacturers should have a clear capital journey and a long-term strategy for capital investment.

"Food manufacturing productivity levels could be significantly higher in the UK and as a key economic driver, the sector could play an even greater role in helping the economy out of the worst recession for a generation.” Concluded Paul.

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